The fascinating science of sleep

By Melissa Zahorujko

We all know that according to the Seven Deadly Sins, sleeping too much is bad. Sure, being a sloth isn’t an ideal lifestyle, but you can’t deny sleep is a rather interesting concept. It essentially takes up one full third of our lives— that’s around 25 years— encompassing a state in which we lay still and literally do nothing. But are we really doing absolutely nothing while we sleep?

Scientists fundamentally categorise sleep into two distinct phases known as ‘non-rapid eye movement’ (non-REM) and ‘rapid eye movement’ (REM). These cycles can be differentiated using a measurement system called electroencephalography (EEG), which basically records the brain’s electrical activity.

In studying the two cycles, REM and non- REM, it has been found that both involve noticeably different electrical waves in the brain. Interestingly, as we move from non-REM sleeping and enter the REM stage, our brain begins to imitate an EEG similar to that of the EEG recorded in an awakened brain. It is during this stage where most of our dreaming really occurs. So, in essence, the brain actually becomes extraordinarily active while we are asleep.

Now that we know the brain is, in fact, doing something while we sleep, that brings us to the question: what on earth is it doing?

It’s true that the field of sleep science is a largely mysterious area. Researchers are pondering theory upon theory and a lot of the information is still unknown. However, many animal and human studies provide evidence proving certain stages of sleep may play an important role in memory ‘consolidation’, which is the term used to describe the processes by which a memory becomes stable.

This, in turn, suggests that after learning a new task or skill, sleeping on it can improve performance, as though our brains are practicing it while we sleep. For example, after learning how to play a song on the piano, our brains will go over the procedure in our sleep and strengthen the neural connections which form that specific memory to help us recall it in the morning. This sort of learning is believed to be strengthened during the REM stage, in particular.

It is evident that sleep, learning and memory are all intertwined in a way—whether that way is fully understood or not—but what about dreaming? What does it mean when we dream?

There are numerous theories explaining why we dream, yet not a single, certain consensus has been reached. Much like the act of sleep itself, dreams remain a rather mysterious concept. Some believe they are vital to one’s mental and physical wellbeing, while others deem them useless and serving no real purpose whatsoever.

Renowned psychoanalyst and theorist, Sigmund Freud, was one to find great importance in dreaming. Consistent with his own psychoanalytic perspective on human-thinking and the driving force of the unconscious mind, Freud made the suggestion that dreams were a representation of unconscious desires, motivations, thoughts and feelings.

That is to say, Freudian psychology underpins dreaming as a symbolic way of experiencing and disposing of repressed aggressive and sexual instincts—types of actions an individual could not possibly carry out in real life. Fascinating, huh?

Expanding on this, Freud went on to explain the way in which an individual dreams in ‘symbols’ and how each symbol becomes a representation of unconscious thinking through association, particularly association by resemblance.

Examples of this include:

• association by resemblance in shape: circular objects = vagina, oblong objects = penis

• association by resemblance in status: King = father, Queen = mother

• association by resemblance in colour: chocolate = poo, yellow = urine

• association by resemblance in sound: sound of a trumpet = fart.

So that’s one theory about dreams, but what about the others?

Many have shunned the psychoanalytic theories of Freud and the emphasis he places on sex, aggression and childhood experiences, mostly, it would seem, due to its confronting nature. J. Allan Hobson and Robert McClarley, however, offered an alternative theory to the psychoanalytic perception of dreaming.

Their ‘activation-synthesis’ model of dreaming seeks to communicate a more biological explanation as opposed to Freud’s psychological one. It assumes the presence of neurological circuits in the brain becoming activated during the REM stage of sleep, consequently activating areas of the brain involved with emotion, sensations and memories.

The brain attempts to interpret this internal activity to create meaning of the signals, resulting in the act of dreaming.

Although the theory relies on biological processes to explain dreaming, it does not deny a psychological meaning behind the interpretations. Dreams, according to Hobson, can be a real product of deep creativity and imagination, producing innovative ideas as we sleep. It’s certainly not a meaningless process.

And there we have it: just a few of the many theories and scientific explanations for sleep and sleep behaviours. Of course, this is not the be all and end all for sleep science. The field is still, as previously mentioned, being unravelled by scientists and psychologists around the world and there is still so much out there unknown to mankind.

What we do know, however, is plain and simple: sleep is extremely important to an individual’s health, wellbeing and performance. So, to all you university students out there, I hope you got enough sleep during the holiday break. After all that hard work in semester one, you deserve it!

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